Erykah Badu loves her personal space. While at her exclusive press conference at Sankara hotel in Kenya, she first requests to move back the dozen microphones on the table staring closely at her. “Hi Nairobi, hello, how’s everyone doing?” The presence of the queen of neo soul in the room is overwhelming, so much that nobody greets her back, at first. It’s 3pm, about 14 hours since her arrival in the country and four hours since the cancellation of her first press conference. But despite jet lag and sleepiness that she confesses to fighting, Ms Badu looks pretty well rested. When the moderator opens the floor for questions, it’s not a fist-fight as you would expect, everyone seems to be intimidated—I am. But as soon as the soft-spoken singer starts to chat, the air around the room becomes more conducive.
She immediately states that music and performance is therapy to her. “Music is almost like the fifth element, it brings about emotion and change in many ways. Its frequency is specific; each note has its own vibration that can be measured. I write lyrics according to what the music makes me feel.”
Erykah is also a songwriter, actor, director, producer and activist—a personification of artistry. From her 90s turban, long dresses and Afros to now—long flowing and kinky hair easy-going with vintage hats; her image has evolved over the years. Erykah’s brass African-map-shaped ring stands out in her fashionable ensemble of cobalt pajama-esque pants, a navy blue top, and numerous humongous wooden bangles. “My taste in humor, fashion, music and film are all in the same category. I like to hear what I like to feel and see, I just gravitate towards things that I get attracted to aesthetically, it’s the art of creating an experience for people to share”, she says. Her music is however unmoved, she’s remained consistent, versatile and unparalleled— almost like she’s has always been in her own world.
The next day at exactly 9.15 pm at Carnivore gardens, Erykah gets on stage. From hard stepping hip hop to mellow sounds, Erykah is a fierce and fearless vocalist/performer. She’s also playing an electronic drum kit in a crazy dance-set with her band. Constantly sipping from her little thermos flask what could be water or vodka or whatever, that nevertheless fires her up at every sip. “At the back! What the fuck you looking at!?” She engages the audience who roar back at her. She sings out loud mixing cussing words with banter, unrelated. Here, she’s self-assured and at home.
I finally get the balls to shoot a question at Ms Badu on her connection to the motherland.
“My first connection to Africa is because about three generations back my family was brought to America from Africa. As Africans living in America, it’s hard to trace our roots so we have to sometimes create our own history, communities and tribes to identify with. Because our birth right is not in place we want to belong to Africa in some kind of way.” Erykah is also involved with the Kemetic community (the study of Egyptian writings) which influenced her stage name. Originally named Erica after a famous soap opera star of the 70s, soon after becoming a recording artist, she changed her name’s suffix to Kah (The inner self that cannot be contaminated). “I wanted to have a name that would have some kind of vibrational frequency that could connect me to my past and future. Badu means 10th born in Ghana, I don’t know why I am [one] but we’ll find out, I am still evolving and creating every day.”
Erykah is also a doula (an assistant to a birthing mother). And she equates birth of life to music. “As a doula I have to be like water, always out-of-the-way to help. But when am on stage am a different kind of servant, I am the mother and the audience is helping me give birth.” On stage, she feeds off the audience’s energy and seems taken a back at Nairobians serenading most of her songs word-for-word. This is where she gives her all. Her typical raspy voice suddenly sounds like three soul singers in one and still manages to outshine her two powerful vocalists paired with her tight six-man band—in a good way. When the ‘Badu, Badu, Badu!’ rhythmic chant overwhelms Erykah, she asks each member of the audience to yell out their own names instead. “What? Are you afraid to scream out your name?” She prods.
It’s a two-hour long concert (non-stop) that sees Erykah, after every couple of minutes shed something. From her shawl, socks to heels—period. When she performs Window Seat, nobody is certain she won’t drop more clothes. She doesn’t.
“Window seat video was performance art and nudity always played a big part in it because [it] demonstrates the bareness of the subject. My issue was group think, which affects all spheres of life from politics to media. I shot the video is Dallas as at the site where JFK was assassinated. As I took each step I eliminated a piece of clothing that represented a thought or something I had learnt forcefully or not here on the planet and as I was totally nude—I was assassinated. In America nudity is grossly misunderstood when it’s not packaged for the consumption of men, I hope a lot of people got the point but if they didn’t, they don’t have to, you cannot censor art.”
My best moment at the concert is her performance of Gone baby gone and Bag Lady. The drum and electric guitar provide a sultry bouncy beat—that deep neo soul. When performing Love of my life (An ode to Hip Hop), her collaboration with former boyfriend Common, she glows like a woman in love. Should have asked her to pass over Common’s number or Andre’s. WTF.
The four-time Grammy award-winning singer has five albums. Her first album (Baduizim) came out in February 1997. Her second album Live came out the same year in November. The same day her son was born. “I spent the whole of my first pregnancy working at the beginning of my career; I had to breast feed and create a home on the tour bus. I know no music business without my children,” says the mother of three.
Her last song Call Tyrone leaves an absolute sense of satisfaction. She’s incessantly chanting ‘peace’ and bids a gratified crowd goodbye displaying with her hands heliograph signs for love and peace. The undisputed queen of neo soul doubles up as queen of the night. She exits. It’s just a few minutes to midnight: 12.12.12, Kenya’s 49th Independence Day.
For more info: www.erykah-badu.com